The Splintered History of the Tunisian Left

A protester gestures to police during a demonstration near the Interior Ministry in Tunis on 8 February 2013. Tens of thousands of mourners chanted anti-Islamist slogans on Friday at the Tunis funeral of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid. (Photo: Zoubeir Souissi – Reuters)
 
Published Saturday, February 9, 2013
 
The assassination of Chokri Belaid, a leader of Tunisia’s leftist Movement of Patriotic Democrats (MPD), raises many questions about not just Belaid’s party, but the Tunisian left as a whole.
 

The roots of the Tunisian leftist movement in all its variations go back to the Tunisian Communist Party, founded by the French in 1920.

With independence, the faction was gradually transformed into a Tunisian party, but despite its old roots, “the party did not spread in society for two central reasons,” according to Abdul-Jalil Bouqara, a historian specializing in the Tunisian left.

“The first was its position on independence following World War II. It rejected calls for independence, adopting the idea of coalition and unity between Tunisia and France under the leadership of the French Communist Party,” Bouqara explained. “This stance led Tunisians to abandon the party.”

“The second reason was its agreement on the partition of Palestine following the creation of the state of Israel,” he continued.

Despite attempts in the 1950s to “Tunisify” the party and adopt independence, it remained isolated until the beginning of the 1960s. Back then, a group of Tunisian students decided to establish a new leftist movement in France named “Afaq,” or “Prospects,” which adopted socialism and democracy.
In 1967, the new movement began aligning with the Maoist tradition, which was gaining ground worldwide. This new direction caused a split inside Afaq, prompting the creation of a splinter group called the “Patriotic Democrats,” which is where Belaid got his start.

Its activities were launched with the 1969 publication of al-Shola, or The Flame. One of its key figures in France and founder was Khaled al-Faleh.

Afaq’s leadership branded the group Stalinist, but this was a label that the Patriotic Democrats did not try to hide. Despite its leanings, the group called for abandoning socialism to concentrate on what it called back then, resistance against imperialist hegemony over Tunisia and the need for agrarian reform, due to MPD’s belief that a feudal class still owned most of the land.
The current became popular with students and began spreading in the Tunisian university scene. It was known for its radical positions and suffered from various splits. It ended up as a number of small groups whose influence was limited to some colleges and trade unions, especially teacher’s associations.

Attempts at Unification

When former Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on 14 January 2011, several leftist parties began to practice their work in the open after years spent underground.

The most important of these groups was the Workers Party, which inherited the Afaq movement; its splinter, the Socialist Party; Belaid’s MPD who had led the Patriotic Democratic Current in universities; the Party for Patriotic Democratic Action; the New Left Party; the Progressive Struggle Party; the Radical Left Current (Trotskyist); and the Patriotic Democratic Party.

Despite this multitude of leftist groups, the left could only reap 5 of the 217 seats in the post-Ben Ali parliamentary elections.

The meager results in the elections prompted Belaid to commit to the unification of the Tunisian left, especially the patriotic-democratic family. Thus came Belaid’s initiative to unite the patriotic democrats in the Unified Democratic Nationalist Party.

The failure of this initiative convinced Belaid of the need to expand it to include all leftists, including the heirs of Afaq, namely the Workers Party, which was formerly accused by the Patriotic Democrats of being reformist.

This led to the Popular Front, which even included the Baath party’s two factions, the Syrian Baath and the Iraqi Baath.

Today, after the assassination of Belaid, the Tunisian left lost a leader who had resolutely strived to unite it, but the bullets put an end to his dreams.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this Blog!

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